Posts Tagged ‘Saint Francis of Assisi’


Saints Francis and Benedict

I found Pope Benedict’s reflection on Saint Francis that we heard at morning prayer to be a real spark for my imagination.  As he pointed out, Francis has transcended the centuries, and he’s done so because all sorts of people have found different reasons to like him.  Francis truly was and is a man for all seasons, a man for all times, and a man for all sorts of people.  And in that light I want to comment on Saints Francis and Benedict.

Most every Benedictine monk knows that Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Benedict began his monastic journey.  There on one of the walls is a fresco of Francis as a memento of that visit.  Clearly Saint Benedict must have meant a lot to Francis, and perhaps he saw something of himself in Benedict.  And if at first blush they seem to have little in common, I think we’d miss an element that is key to the story of each.  Both of them fled social environments that they found toxic.  For his part Francis fled the bourgeois wealth of his family, and Benedict fled the wealth of Rome.

E45B1A7C-8B38-4DA5-A825-FCC20E425617All too often we’ve assumed that Benedict sought escape from the dissipated student life of the city.  In fact it may have been more likely that he fled the wealthy ways of the Church in Rome.  So I’m not sure what Benedict expected to find when he got to Rome, but it may have been the wealth and growing power of the Church that sent him packing.  The churches that he entered looked every bit like the basilicas in which the emperors had presided, and where the emperors had once sat the leading clergy sat instead.  And manuscript historian Christopher de Hamel notes that illuminations of the day show the apostles and bishops clean-shaven and dressed every bit like members of the Roman senatorial class.  And so it’s entirely possible that the wealth of the Church sent Benedict into the wilderness, just as it did the Egyptian ascetics in the 4th century.

What might we conclude about Benedict and Francis?  For one, they were not Manichaean dualists.  For them neither wealth nor creation were intrinsically evil.  On the other hand they each had seen how wealth and power could transform even the best of people.   Neither wanted to be in the number of the latter.

And so, on the feast of Saint Francis may we celebrate with joy all of God’s creation, as Francis did.  And then let us remember that God has put us here not to be transformed by the good things of the earth.  Rather, let us transform all those good things and put them into the service of the Lord.


+On September 30th through October 2nd I hosted four supporters of the Immokalee Scholarship Program at Saint John’s University.  While at Saint John’s I got to spend some wonderful moments with John, Jack, Sandy and Bill, and certainly the highlight of the visit was the evening when we join nine of our students from Immokalee for dinner.

+On October 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the text of the homily that I preached that day.  In the monastery we began the day with a morning prayer reading in which Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the appreciation for Saint Francis through the centuries.

+On October 5th I flew to Omaha, NE, and the next day I gave a tour of an exhibit of The Saint John’s Bible, now at the Joslyn Art Museum for the next few weeks.  On Monday the 7th I will give a lecture to Friends of the Museum.

+Readers may find it a surprise to learn that Saint Francis made a pilgrimage to Subiaco, where Saint Benedict began life as a hermit.  The fresco of Saint Francis was painted shortly after his visit, and the absence of a halo indicates that he was still very much alive at the time of the painting.  That fresco is included in today’s post, along with other photos of the abbey of Subiaco.


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The Flame of the Easter Candle

The flames from Notre Dame electrified all who stared at them in disbelief.  I was as shocked as anyone, and the thought of losing Notre Dame nearly brought me to tears.  And that takes a lot, given that my default buttons are set to stoicism.

People were stunned for all sorts of reasons, but at bottom was the assumption that nothing could ever topple it.  Notre Dame is huge, and it’s stone.  It looks indestructible.  But hidden from the naked eye was the forest of wooden beams that held it all in place.  For over 800 years they had done so.  Yet, in a matter of minutes they were no more.  What remains are walls of stone, kept in place by brilliant design, gravity, and perhaps the grace of God.

C0FBDF52-4FAB-48C2-8D07-0522781FDC4AThe flames in turn have sparked a torrent of generosity from donors great and small, and that’s good.  It will take an awful lot of money to rebuild Notre Dame, and it will take time.  But to me it’s worth it, because a place like Notre Dame is a barometer of the health of a society.

As I watched the flames devour the roof of Notre Dame my memory summoned up one story from the life of Saint Francis.  In a derelict chapel outside of Assisi, Francis heard this:  “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

At first Francis took those words literally, and his neighborhood had lots of chapels in need of repair.  But Francis decided not to become a stonemason, because he also appreciated the symbolic urgency of those words.  Appearances to the contrary, the Church was in dire shape, and it was desperate for reform.  If then it was time to reset the stones of tumbled-down churches, it was also time to see to the vitality of the flesh and blood stones of the Church.

71A90053-7658-4E6B-A8D7-EF1D566C9A63Could the fire at Notre Dame be God’s warning to the Church today?  That thought has run through the minds of many.  Still others see the flood of money for its restoration as a misdirection of funds that could be used to help the poor.  While I appreciate the concern for the poor, I don’t appreciate the binary choice that some people demand.  Jesus asks us to do for the poor what we would do for him.  That said, it is the same Lord who blessed us with the creativity that we’ve channeled into poetry and music and architecture and art.  I’ve always believed that giving to the poor and the encouragement of creativity cannot be an either/or proposition.  It’s both/and, and so we must serve the poor and see to to the beautiful — and lots more besides.

Easter is the season of renewed hope — both for the Church and for us as individuals.  So it is that we believe that the Lord walks alongside us, just as he did with Saint Francis.  And if the Lord managed to do great things through Francis, who’s to say that God can’t do equally fine things through us?

If there’s something positive to salvage from the flames of Notre Dame, it may be this.  We began Lent with ashes and ended at the Easter vigil with the flame of the Easter candle.  Those tongues of fire can serve as a wake-up call to each one of us this Easter.  If fire can destroy, as it did at Notre Dame, it can also strengthen and purify.  May the risen Lord take us by the hand and fire us with excitement to do his work.


+On April 15th I had class with Novice Jeremy, who is fated to learn more about the monastic tradition and history from me.  We will be meeting for ten classes on the development of the Benedictine tradition from Saint Benedict through the Reformation.

+On April 17th I hosted two friends from Naples, FL, who came to Saint John’s University to meet with some of our students from Immokalee, FL.  As supporters of our Immokalee Scholarship Program, they sponsor two of our freshmen, and it was a pleasure to meet with those students later in the day.

+According to several reports, during the night of April 19th —- Good Friday — the last of the ice went out from Lake Sagatagan, which spreads over 200 acres behind the monastery.  The next day it reached a balmy 73 degrees, and I went out for a five-mile walk.

+The Easter vigil was a lovely and moving experience.  It was also a bit on the lengthy side, lasting just shy of three hours.  Joining us for the vigil Mass was a large contingent of Latinos from the parish communities in nearby Rockville and Cold Spring.  Select hymns and readings were in Spanish, and Fr. Efrain repeated Abbot John’s sermon in Spanish.

+May you have a happy Easter season!


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14c. AssisiSaint Francis Revisited

Most people think of medieval studies as pretty arcane, and I’m not about to disabuse them of the notion. Still, the discipline has its moments, as I’ve discovered over the years. Likely the highest of all medieval high points is one session among 350+ at the annual medieval congress, held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. On a Saturday night in May, when you would expect most medievalists to be in a library or in a bar, there is one session which for years has been SRO. So packed has it been that on many an occasion the local fire marshal has threatened to shut the place down. That alone would be enough to drive up attendance. But people come in droves anyway, not to defy the authorities, but to listen to three scholars deliver totally fake academic papers.

For marketing reasons the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi is better known as the Pseudo Society. It also helps that the latter name is easier for us medievalists to remember. I was not there when the Societas was born, but I’ve always assumed that it began as an effort to give people a break in the middle of a very intense academic experience. To be sure, I’m not inferring that four days of medieval research papers can leave one yawning. Nor would I contend that they are as electric as re-runs of six-hour Fidel Castro speeches. They’re somewhere in between. And the Societas sought to fill this gap with just a touch of comic relief. What results is a roomful of scholars who wished that they too had the nerve to present a pack of lies as if they were the God’s honest truth.

The Francis returning from battle

The young Francis returning from battle

In the course of twenty-five years scholars of the Societas have regaled their audiences with papers both naughty and nice, and you get hints of this in some of the titles. I was not there to hear “On the Medieval Origins of Modern Underwear: Leutard of Chalons and his ‘Bee’VDs.” I’m guessing that it tiptoed perilously close to the edge of unseemly. I also missed “You Can’t Get There from Here: An Eastern Pilgrim’s Guide to Western Europe (c. 1295).” It likely edified the readers (or not, depending on why they couldn’t get there from here.)

But I did hear “Otics: When Semiotics Reaches Maturity.” That one was quite clever, but it left me scratching my head. But of all the papers I have heard through the years, my all-time favorite has been “The Recently-Discovered Lost Account Books of Francis of Assisi.” In the driest of understatement, the author concluded that history has grossly underestimated Francis for his business acumen. Perhaps it was time to give Francis his due as an economic visionary, he mused. We who listened were highly amused; but Francis has yet to get the nod as patron of accountants.



Please don’t conclude that medieval studies have been reduced to creative fiction. In fact, extraordinary work continues to apper, including a recent book by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP. In his “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography” (Cornell University Press, 2012) he sifts fact from legend, and in the process gives us a Saint Francis that is far more complex and far more human that we could have hoped for.

Francis was in many ways a victim of his own success. As Thompson details, Francis was highly idealistic, but anguish followed as he applied his ideals to lived reality. But from the pens of his many admirers flowed biographies that obscured these interior struggles. In the process they recast Francis, and what emerged was a saint with little self-doubt and replete with the virtues people expected to find in a medieval saint. In short, they domesticated Francis, and he is now an environmental icon and the familiar figure who adorns birdbaths everywhere.

The Fratres Minores — the Lesser Brothers — reflected Francis’ desire to be the least in society. In practice this meant that neither he nor any of his brothers should exercise lordly power over anyone — including their own brothers. Herein arose one of his most painful dilemmas, however.

St. Francis, portrait from life, Abbey of Subiaco

St. Francis, portrait from life, Abbey of Subiaco

Francis prescribed a humility that was hard to take in most circumstances. Quite naturally he hesitated to exercise the authority that should have been his as a founder; and he surprised everyone when he resigned as superior. But then it is almost comical to see him telling his hesitant new superiors what to order him to do.

His travels to the Holy Land brought to a head this conundrum of leadership. While away, his hand-picked successors promulgated rules of which he did not approve. But how do you confront the officials whom you’ve appointed, without resorting to the arbitrary use of your own authority? This issue vexed Francis throughout his entire life as a friar.

Francis went on to formulate a style of leadership that differed markedly from that of Benedict and other medieval religious orders. His superiors would serve limited rather than life terms. His superior would rule by example rather than by stern words. His superior wouuld be a nurturer rather than a disciplinarian.

Assisi at nightAs Thompson sorts out the nuggets of truth from the vast literature on Francis, what emerges is an imaginative and independent personality. I was startled by Thompson’s observation that Francis ate meat and allowed it to his brothers — making them unique among medieval religious orders. But even as he ate meat, Francis still respected his fellow creatures. “Near the end of his life, in a very revealing gesture, he urged his brothers to put out special food for the birds and beasts at Christmas so that in their own way they might rejoice at the birth of the Savior.” (pp. 55-56)

Fr. Augustine Thompson’s book is wonderfully accessible to non-scholars and scholars alike. It well rewards a reading, and I highly recommend you give the book to yourself this Christmas. In your own way you too can then celebrate the birth of the Savior.

Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, ca. 1485, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, ca. 1485, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

+Personal Notes

On December 11th, I and Matt Bierne, a colleague from Saint John’s University, had the oppportunity to visit Immokalee High School and the Guadalupe Center in Florida. The Center was founded to serve the children of migrant workers in the area, and today it serves children from age six weeks through college. It may be unique in the relationship it has set up among the students. It selects, trains and pays high school students to tutor the youngsters — binding the generations together within an academic framework. The younger students learn from and emulate the high school students; while the high school students discover talents and possibilities they had never imagined for themselves. It is an extraordinary program, made possible by some very generous and far-sighted local citizens.

During the past few days I have driven through Florida and Arizona, listening to a steady stream of Christmas music. It’s a little incongruous to look at cactus and palm trees while hearing Johnny Mathis sing “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” And, frankly, in southwest Florida you seldom hear sleighbells ring while the snow glistens. Both would startle the locals.

Abbey church: Advent wreath

Abbey church: Advent wreath

This reminded me once again that much of our Christmas music was written for northern climates. But in one of the great ironies of history, the Holy Family would have felt far more at home in the landscape of Arizona. No deciduous forests for them!

+Newtown, CT

The tragedy in Connecticut shocks and saddens virtually every decent human being. God did not make us to perpetrate such evil — or to have to endure it. There is no way to explain why children die, while parents must anguish. Much will be said and written about this, but one eloquent gesture would be to remember them in silence on December 28th — the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Now it is their feast day too.

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